Attrition: Where Have All The Dead Americans Gone?

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January 3, 2008: U.S. forces suffered 107 casualties (dead and wounded) for the month of December in Iraq.Twelve months previously (December, 2006), there were 817. In between there was a bloody campaign, called "the surge," which caused most of the 6,801 casualties American troops suffered that year. In 2006 there were 7,221 casualties.

The U.S. always put a premium on keeping American casualties down. This led to tactics, equipment and weapons designed to get the job done, with the fewest American dead and wounded. As a result, the casualty rate in Iraq was less than half what it was in Vietnam. There was also an emphasis on keeping civilian casualties down. It was difficult for most Americans to realize this, given the media's fixation on real or imagined atrocities. In Iraq, over 90 percent of civilian casualties were inflicted by other Iraqis. The military encouraged the media to not cover the many procedures ("rules of engagement" or ROE) U.S. troops follow to avoid civilian losses. This was because the enemy would exploit those ROEs as much as possible.

In hindsight, U.S. troops will get credit for keeping their own casualties down to historically low levels (compared to any other 20th century conflict). Professional soldiers have already recognized this feat, and are studying American techniques intensively. Less well appreciated are the efforts the Americans made to keep civilian losses down. But foreign military experts are coming to appreciate that this aspect of the war paid long term benefits. Iraqis saw, day by day, the efforts by American troops to avoid hurting civilians. Initially, Iraqis saw that as an American weakness, but in the long run they recognized it as a sensibility rarely seen in the Middle East. This will have long term consequences for relations between the United States and Iraq.

 


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